1. asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what work Invest NI undertakes in co-operation with the Industrial Development Agency Ireland to promote the Newry/Dundalk region for foreign direct investment, given the area's ease of access to the two largest centres of population on the island. (AQO 3643/11-15)
It should be noted that Invest Northern Ireland is in direct competition with the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) for many of the inward investment projects that it targets. Any co-operation between the two agencies must be put in that context. It does not extend to the collaborative active promotion of cross-border areas for foreign direct investment (FDI) purposes. Invest NI will, however, co-operate with the IDA when it considers that it is in the best interests of Northern Ireland to do so.
As I said, we are often in competition with the IDA for foreign direct investment. We will, however, work with the IDA when we think that there is a prospect of us working together. We will do that, of course, without any difficulty at all. We want to ensure that we meet our Programme for Government targets for foreign direct investment. Those are the targets that have been set for Invest Northern Ireland, and they are the targets by which it works.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answer.
Last Thursday, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment visited Derry to hear about the City of Culture and proposals that have been developed in that regard. During that time, we met certain sections of the business community who were very anxious to establish whether specific strategies have been developed for the north-west. Will the Minister advise whether specific geographic strategies are being developed for areas such as the north-west?
I am glad that the Member enjoyed his time in Londonderry when he was with the Committee. We have been very pleased with the way in which the UK City of Culture has really put the city on the map. The Executive have received the One Plan from the city. There are big plans for the city and the region. Invest Northern Ireland has very much bought into that. We will develop the plan along those lines, because it has been developed by the city, Ilex and all the different stakeholders up there.
We work ever more closely with UKTI because of its network right across the world. It has great specialisms in certain offices across the world, and we want to take advantage of that. There has been regular engagement — more so since I became the Minister — with UKTI. Dialogue is happening across all levels of UKTI and Invest Northern Ireland.
We have ensured that the GREAT campaign messaging and core script include the appropriate reference to the wider Northern Ireland business and tourism offering. We are also working very closely with UKTI to ensure that the Northern Ireland message is included and applied at the relevant international events. Companies such as Wrightbus have been included in the GREAT campaign. We are very pleased to see that that is the case.
Economy: Fiscal Deficit
Our economic strategy recognises that an over-reliance on the public sector is a key long-term challenge to be addressed. That, alongside a comparatively small private sector, has contributed to a large fiscal deficit. In order to grow our economy and enhance prosperity, the economic strategy aims to rebalance the economy by promoting a sustainable and growing private sector with firms competing successfully in global markets. The strategy also highlights the need to develop the areas of the private sector that offer the greatest potential for growth, including telecommunications, information and communication technology (ICT), life and health sciences, agrifood, advanced materials and advanced engineering.
It is very clear. We intend to grow our private sector, and that is very clearly set out in our Programme for Government. Of course, at a national level, we are dealing with a very significant deficit and, as part of the United Kingdom, we bear part of that deficit. We want to be able to grow the private sector and, I have to say, reduce our welfare benefits. Of course, welfare reform is dealing with that at the moment.
There are also deficits across the euro zone. We look with interest and, indeed, some alarm, at what is happening in Cyprus and the fact that Italy was unable to elect a clear Government. There are problems across the euro zone and some alarming signs, particularly in relation to what happened in Cyprus over the weekend.
I thank the Member for his question. We have long said that we need corporation tax powers as a tool to help to close the deficit and bring economic prosperity to Northern Ireland. There is a well-established, long-standing need to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy.
This morning, I was very interested to read that the chair of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) here, Ian Coulter, has started a campaign similar to the UK City of Culture in relation to corporation tax, and has adopted the Snow Patrol song 'Just Say Yes'. The CBI is going to keep pushing the issue until the First Minister and deputy First Minister meet the Prime Minister. I wholly support that. It is two years since the initial consultation was launched, and the delay in reaching a decision means that we are losing out on real jobs and investment opportunities at a time when we need them most. We absolutely need a positive conclusion to be brought to that debate.
Like the Member, I have an interest in that particular fiscal intervention. If it is the case that tax breaks for childcare will be given to parents, that can only be to the good. It will encourage parents to get involved in employment and, in many cases, start their own businesses. I would very much welcome that tax intervention if it comes about.
The strategic energy framework sets out the direction for Northern Ireland energy policy up to 2020, including renewable energy targets. My Department is leading a study that will help us to set a long-term vision for energy. It is not just about renewable energy, as you have to look at the system as a whole up to 2050. This is a complex matter that requires the consideration of many difficult issues, not least cost to consumers. The study should be completed by spring or early summer. However, it is important to recognise this is only the first step in a broader direction of travel.
The important thing for us, first, is to look at our own piece in order to work out what we see as the broader energy framework going forward to 2050. We have had four consultation sessions to try to inform us about the development of the vision. That will certainly set the direction of travel for us, but it will be difficult to set any concrete targets further than 2020. Fifty years is a long time, although it is 37 now, but we need to recognise that there will be changes in technology. If we looked forward from 1976, would we have been able to foresee all the new technologies that are available to us now? We have to factor that in to any vision that we have for 2050, and we also have to look at our carbon reduction targets, which have been set, to make sure that our vision for energy policy sits with them.
The work has begun, and we will certainly be looking at other areas to see whether we can learn or, indeed, work together on anything. I think that the key element for us is to make sure that we have our own vision for 2050.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister will be aware of a recent report on energy that PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) published that said that the extraction of shale gas could lead to a reduction in energy prices of between 25% and 40%. Would the Minister agree with that claim, or would she agree with me that it would be extremely naive for any of us to think that those with a vested interest in high energy prices would allow the production of shale oil that would be sufficient to result in such a huge reduction in energy prices?
The Member moved from shale oil to shale gas, so I am not sure what he is referring to. However, I am, of course, aware of the PwC report, as, indeed, I am of numerous reports that are being made available on shale gas, hydraulic fracturing and shale oil.
We will take all that information and look at it in the round, and we will not be basing our decisions on one report or another. The Member knows that we have had reports from, for example, a House of Commons Select Committee, which believes that we should proceed with hydraulic fracturing in a regulated environment. We can take that report or that from PwC, or we can take others that are very firmly against hydraulic fracturing and the benefits of shale gas and shale oil.
We need to deal with the facts, and, at present, we are looking at the fact that Tamboran Resources Ltd has not yet submitted an application to drill a test hole to retrieve rock cores. That would usually happen under permitted development, but that is, of course, entirely a matter for Planning Service in the Department of the Environment.
After that test hole is drilled, Tamboran will undertake environmental baseline studies before putting in a planning application. So, there is a long way to go in this process, and we are only at the beginning. I have no doubt that many other reports will come forward in the intervening period.
As I indicated to Ms Lo, as we look forward to 2050, we see that there are major uncertainties with new technologies, some of which will flourish and some of which will fail. Indeed, we must also consider how behaviours and infrastructure will have changed over the intervening period. So, I believe that it is wrong to rule anything out of the equation. Of course, nuclear energy is a reserved matter that still sits with Westminster, and therefore, it will remain there. However, that does not stop us including nuclear energy in any vision that we may have for 2050.
I thank the Minister for her efforts in trying to improve the energy mix in Northern Ireland. What can she say about the effect of the infrastructure grid restrictions on making sure that renewable energies can be realised here in Northern Ireland, particularly where the North/South interconnector and the east-west connectors are concerned?
The Member knows that I am on record as being very concerned about the slow pace of the North/South interconnector. As I understand it, NIE is planning to resubmit its application for the Northern Ireland element of the interconnector in the near future. That application will then go to the Planning Appeals Commission, probably for a public inquiry. It is my hope that the commission will deal with the application as expeditiously as it can, because this matter is becoming urgent for security of supply and, indeed, for ensuring that we have that grid infrastructure in place.
The Member raised another important issue about the grid infrastructure; and I presume that he was referring to the west of the country where a lot of our wind energy and new anaerobic digesters are located, although not uniquely so. I am concerned that we need to make sure that we have the appropriate grid in place. Now, there are many discussions about who pays for that grid — whether that should be the consumers or the companies that are in charge of transmission and distribution. However, we must make sure that we have the appropriate grid for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that we need to make sure that the lights stay on across Northern Ireland.
Granville Industrial Estate, Dungannon
All of the land at Invest Northern Ireland's Granville industrial estate has been allocated to businesses in support of economic development. However, as you will be aware, it has recently developed Dungannon business park, which is adjacent to the Granville estate. I am delighted to be able to advise you that Invest Northern Ireland has very recently completed the sale of almost 15 acres of this new industrial land to a business, in support of its economic development project. Invest Northern Ireland also has registered interests from six businesses seeking to acquire land within Dungannon business park, and it will work closely with them to develop those interests further.
I thank the Member for his supplementary. Indeed, energy costs and the costs of doing business have continued to rise. It concerns me considerably that a lot of our companies have difficulties with their energy pricing. That is one of the reasons why I was delighted to see the Executive approve putting up to £32·5 million towards extending the natural gas network to main towns in the west and north-west, including Dungannon.
An extension of the gas network will provide an alternative, currently cheaper, energy source for business and domestic consumers. We hope that the Utility Regulator will shortly commence a public consultation on a licence for taking gas to the west and the north-west. A licence award is expected in or around the end of 2013. We hope that that will encourage people to take up use of the network that will be there for them, thereby reducing their energy costs.
The Member knows that we have just managed to sell 15 acres of that site for economic development to a local, indigenous company that exports across Europe and that we are delighted to see expand in that area. Although the Member referred to it, the cost of the site is not the primary operation of what we do through Invest Northern Ireland. What we try to do is to intervene where market failure has occurred, so that we can provide the space for companies to come in as foreign direct investors or, as in this case, for local companies to expand their businesses. Therefore, although we always have to ensure value for money in our purchase of sites, we also want to ensure that we have land available for companies that want to expand.
Agrifood: Beef Contamination
I have discussed the meat contamination issue with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Agriculture Minister and the Health Minister. My Department is represented on the food and feed incident management group, which has met regularly since this issue first came to our attention, and my officials provide daily updates on the key issues. I assure the Assembly that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) is working closely with all the relevant bodies in Northern Ireland to ensure that all efforts are being made to protect the reputation of our home-grown produce, the sector and its contribution to our economy.
What action has the agencies and Departments taken between them to make sure that there are no gaps in the system that she is discussing with them and to give confidence to consumers that they are safe in the knowledge that what they purchase and eat is exactly what it is described as?
As the Member knows, we have long said that Northern Ireland has a strong traceability system in place, so there is traceability from the farm to the fork. We should be very confident of all fresh produce in Northern Ireland, and we will continue to be confident of it. We must recognise that contamination is a Europe-wide issue, and I believe that a solution will come from a European level. We will, of course, work with all the relevant agencies to make sure that that is the case.
I reiterate: food produced in Northern Ireland is of stellar quality. We should all be ambassadors for food from Northern Ireland. I had the great pleasure of doing that on HMS Belfast last Friday, 15 March, when I hosted an Invest Northern Ireland reception celebrating St Patrick. We talked a lot about St Patrick's Trail and all that south Down has to offer, but we also talked about good food and the fact that food from Northern Ireland has a strong heritage and authenticity, of which we should be proud.
I do not think anybody could say that I am not an ambassador for good food in Northern Ireland. [Laughter.] Does the Minister accept that the contamination of processed beef products with horse and other species provides a tremendous opportunity for Northern Ireland farmers and beef processors?
I thank the Member for his question and for all that he does for the food industry in Northern Ireland on a very personal level.
As I said, the traceability controls in our agrifood supply chain are very strong. They emphasise the benefits to consumers and businesses of purchasing local produce. I welcome Tesco's announcement last week that it plans to double the amount of fresh meat that it sources in Northern Ireland. It is an important commitment by Tesco, and hopefully other retailers will follow so that profitability will flow down to farmers and have a positive knock-on impact on our agrifood sector, which is also important.
Each and every part of government should be doing that in any event, and we will continue to do it through Invest Northern Ireland's food department. The Northern Ireland beef and lamb farm quality assurance scheme celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. We do not want duplication, but we do want results. Invest NI can talk about the extensive traceability controls throughout the supply chain and assure customers of the total integrity of the Northern Ireland beef product. I hope that the farm quality assurance scheme will step up a gear so that we can assure consumers that if they eat produce from a Northern Ireland farm, they will enjoy it very much.
Tourism: Overseas Visitors
The difficulty with the figures is one reason why tourism statistics are coming back into the Department. As the Member says, we do not have all the information at present, so I cannot give a full picture for the tourism sector. Latest estimates indicate that we welcomed over one million visitors from Great Britain and overseas in the first nine months of 2012, but those figures are still provisional estimates, and I am waiting for the full figures.
The domestic market and our visitors from the Republic make up more than half of our overall tourism performance. Unfortunately, I do not have those figures to hand because they have not been made available to us, but it is safe to say that we had a very good 2012. A record 45 cruise ships called at Belfast port, and, as of the end of February, Titanic Belfast had over 700,000 visitors since it opened on 30 March 2012. The Giant's Causeway has had over 325,000 visitors from over 130 countries from July 2012 to the start of January 2013. Those are very good statistics, but we will have the full statistics in May.
The Member knows, as does the House, that better air access directly into Northern Ireland is a continual focus of mine. The abolition of air passenger duty (APD) on direct long-haul flights has made us a viable option for some destinations in which we may not otherwise have been able to compete.
I am spending a lot of my time working with Tourism Ireland, Belfast International Airport and others to maximise the opportunity presented by the elimination of direct long-haul APD and attract new long-haul services. Direct connectivity would hugely increase the number of tourists who come directly to Northern Ireland, which would be all to the good of the sector.
The Audit Office set the target of 400,000 visitors a year, which it thought we would not meet. With the year not even complete, we are now at 700,000, and the number continues to rise. Titanic Belfast has been a game changer for tourism in Northern Ireland. It has been a real catalyst. When I speak to tour operators, whether in Germany, San Francisco or Dubai, they always talk about Titanic Belfast and the fact that it would be a key element of their visit to Northern Ireland.
Of all the figures available, and taking into account that the targets include the Great Britain, overseas, Republic of Ireland and domestic markets, we are broadly on track to meet the overnight visitor and revenue targets, so I do not see any need to revise them at this time.
Renewable Energy: Intergovernmental Agreement
I have been in correspondence with the Rt Hon Edward Davey MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and his predecessor, Charles Hendry, on this issue for some time. Although this is a reserved matter, I have highlighted its potential impact on consumers and the renewable energy sector in Northern Ireland.
There is an enormous amount of analytical work to do before proceeding to an intergovernmental agreement. Northern Ireland will be fully involved in discussions to examine the costs and benefits of any renewable energy co-operation.
The UK renewable road map, which was published in July 2011, sets out the Government's intention to enable the export and import of renewable energy under the flexibility mechanisms in the renewable energy directive in order to secure the greatest benefit to the whole of the UK.
Although the renewable energy directive contains a provision to enable co-operation across Europe, the detailed practical arrangements, which are largely left to member states to determine, are still to be worked out. That is why the memorandum of understanding is aspirational at present. A huge amount of analytical work needs to be carried out, particularly, from our perspective, on the impacts that such trading would have on Northern Ireland. Obviously, we do not want offshore energy from the Republic of Ireland to be traded into the UK, thereby skewing the renewable obligations under which we operate currently.